Sunday, 30 May 2010

WOULD THE REAL PABLO PICASSO PLEASE STAND UP? Politics vs. realism in The Massacre in Korea

Lee R Kendall

The outbreak of hostilities in the Korean peninsula on 25th June, 1950 marked the first open conflict of what was to become the Cold War, a political and ideological battlefield that polarized the Capitalist countries of the United Nations, led by the US, and the Communists, led by the Stalinist Soviet Union and the PRC (Peoples Republic of China). Picasso’s response to the outbreak of the war The Massacre in Korea (1951, Musée Picasso, Paris), and its perceived anti-American tone, created a furore when it was first exhibited at the Salon de Mai in 1951, not, as some commentators believe, solely because of the artist’s membership of the CFP - the French Communist Party (and therefore, his political bias), but equally because Picasso was so adamant that the events depicted in the painting – nominally American soldiers executing Korean women and children in cold blood – were not symbolic, but based on truth. The events surrounding the deadly US aerial bombing of No Gun Ri on 26th July, 1950, and the subsequent claims that US troops on the ground had shot and killed more than 300 unarmed civilian men, women and children inside a tunnel to which they had gone to seek shelter, were certainly controversial, but, when seized upon as a subject by the most famous artist of the Twentieth Century, they assumed a significance that went far beyond the normal form of war reportage. Forget Guernica (1937) and Le Charnier (The Charnel House) (1944-48); the most convincing anti-war message, and the most daring political statement that Picasso ever painted is found in The Massacre in Korea.

The Korean War had its roots in the undignified division of the country into North and South – along the 38th parallel – by the Allied Powers following the end of the War in the Pacific. Prior to WWII, the Korean peninsula had been under the administrative control of Japan, and was left in an economically perilous position following the Japanese surrender. Soviet (i.e. Communist) forces at first held on to the former Japanese territories in the North, whilst US troops occupied those in the South. The failure of the Allies to construct a fair and legitimate platform for freely held elections across the country in 1948 led the leader of the Korean North, Kim Il-Sung, into declaring that territory Communist. In the South, the ruling majority government led by President Syngman Rhee, wholly opposed to Communist rule, was supported in its resistance to Communist incursion by the US. Both North and South maintained equal claims to the sovereignty of the whole Korean peninsula and thus the lines were drawn for a bitter standoff should the militia of either side venture into the so-called demilitarized zone (DMZ) of the 38th parallel. Tensions between the two sides were ratcheted steadily up throughout 1949 until Kim Il-Sung, backed by the Soviets, and the PRC under Chairman Mao, suddenly embarked upon a programme to unify Korea by force. This action prompted the President of the US, Harry S. Truman to declare a state of emergency. The early days of the war in 1950 were fraught with tactical errors and accusations of atrocities committed by soldiery on all sides. But for Picasso – whose application for a visa of entry into the US to lead 12 delegates from the Congrès Mondial des Partisans de la Paix (World Congress of Peace Partisans) on a visit to the White House in order to persuade President Truman to curtail the US development of atomic (nuclear) weaponry, had just been refused[i] – the threat posed by America to the safety of the world was of the utmost concern. As the only country in history to deploy ‘weapons of mass-destruction’, the question on everyone’s lips given the early engagement of US forces in the conflict in Korea was would America use them again?

It is not especially difficult to understand Picasso’s fear of and anger with the US at this time; after Hiroshima/Nagasaki these were emotions shared by millions of people – not just Communists, all over the world; nor is it difficult to understand the decision by the US administration to deny him a visa. Picasso mattered. Picasso was fêted. His decision to join with the enemy Communists after the Liberation of Paris in 1944 was an outright rejection of the American way, and no responsible government could tolerate (risk) the power of his thought and influence on home soil should he be allowed entry into the ‘land of the free’. And yet there were also deep divisions within the Communist Party itself as to what their most famous member was really up to in his art practice. Since 1944 Picasso had openly refused to tow the party line with regards to his pictorial style, rejecting out of hand repeated calls for him to resume the Socialist Realist style of his teenage years, and that most favoured by Stalin.

Picasso had little choice publicly but to abide by the Americans’ decision not to allow him into the country; but in private he vowed amongst friends to respond in the only way that he knew how – through art.

Stories about No Gun Ri began to circulate in Communist circles soon after the massacre. The French writer Jean-Paul Crespelle has noted that although it was a key member of the French Communist Party who first brought the matter to Picasso’s attention[ii]; it was Picasso himself who came up with the idea to turn the story of the massacre into a supreme artistic statement. This was not entirely, as writers such as Gertje R. Utley attest[iii], an attempt by Picasso to curry favour with the Communist hierarchy in Paris – in particular Louis Aragon and Laurent Casanova – who had both been highly critical thus far of Picasso’s reluctance to conform to the Socialist Realist style, or to make his political convictions i.e. anti-Capital, crystal clear. Picasso’s highly considered response to the massacre ran much, much deeper than this. To put the matter into context, philosophically, Picasso saw no difference between what the Americans were said to have done at No Gun Ri and what the Nazis had done at Guernica. This was not just about political point scoring – this was about a fundamental lack of respect for humanity, and Picasso, as a fully committed gendarme of the peace movement was determined on this occasion to make his voice heard. Thus he set about creating a large scale canvas following the example of one of the greatest history paintings of the 19th Century: The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian (1868-69) by Édouard Manet (1832-1883).

Manet’s notorious canvas (banned in lithograph form by the authorities of the Second Empire, and never publicly shown in France during his lifetime[iv]) was a passionately dispassionate response to the killing in Mexico of the vassal of Napoleon III, the puppet emperor Maximilian I – by rebels led by General Benito Juárez following the sudden withdrawal of French troops from French held territory at Veracruz in 1867. This incident – regarded as the callous betrayal by Napoleon III of his own flesh and blood, and a disastrous foreign policy blunder that would ultimately lead to the ignominious defeat of the French at the Franco-Prussian War in 1870, as well as the stand-off of the Paris Commune in 1871 – was seized upon by Manet not only to criticize the dictatorial rule of Napoleon III, whom he loathed[v]; but through the acknowledged template of Goya’s Third of May, 1808 (1814), use art to fabricate a highly charged political rebuff against French expansionist policies abroad. Picasso had seen the third version of Manet’s painting (now in the Künsthalle at Mannheim) during its much publicized display at the Salon d’Automne in Paris, in 1905, and had been struck by the audacious immediacy of Manet’s approach to a subject that by then was little more than a distant memory. Indeed the sledgehammer bluntness of Manet’s image, which shows Maximilian I and his loyal generals Miramón and Mejía lined up in front of a barely defined wall over on the left, just at the moment when the Mexican soldiery – ranged almost en-masse against them – open fire over on the right, remains a harrowing experience; all the more so given the lack of conventional foreground (thus forcing the viewer effectively ‘into’ the same space), and the callous expression on the face of the NCO positioned over on the extreme right, calmly checking over his rifle while his orders are carried out. Picasso’s deep admiration for the art of the past is generally overlooked by those critics who see him as being the great iconoclast and Osiris of Modernism; but nonetheless it is clear that he was always receptive to ideas no matter what, or when, their origin, and kept a mental record of any artwork that had the power to move or to inspire him. In the later 1950s and 1960s of course, this fascination with the art of the past would lead Picasso into a much closer dialogue with painters as diverse as Velázquez (1599-1660) and Delacroix (1798-1863); but whereas tussles with Velázquez’s Las Meninas (1656), Delacroix’s Women of Algiers (1834) and even Manet’s Le Déjuner sur l’herbe (1863) resulted in entire series of pictorial responses, Picasso only treated with The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian once.

The parallels between the French involvement in Mexico in the 1850s, and American involvement in Korea one hundred years later were perfectly clear as far as Picasso was concerned. Both countries were seemingly hell bent on serving their own interests in foreign lands under the pretext of meting out social justice, and both used the most up to date methods of warfare in their attempts to achieve their goals. It did not matter that hundreds, perhaps thousands of civilians got caught up in the crossfire, those ruling from a distance – whether it be Napoleon III or President Truman, were only concerned with results that favoured their own ideologies and their own grip on world power[vi]. This is precisely why Picasso fixed upon Manet’s controversial painting as his model. Not only was the composition extremely well known in France, it was also well known in America, where Manet’s final version had first been publicly exhibited at the Clarendon Hotel in New York City in 1879 before moving on to the Studio Building gallery in Boston in 1880[vii]. In addition, Manet’s much sketchier first version of the painting had been purchased from Picasso’s sometime patron Ambroise Vollard by the American art collector Frank Gair Macomber in 1909 and subsequently presented to the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston in 1930[viii]. The art historical linkage and lineage is crucial in understanding Picasso’s scheme for The Massacre in Korea because without it, his crushing disappointment at the paintings negative reception by the French Communist Party and fellow intellectuals cannot be adequately explained; nor for that matter its hostile reception by Western i.e. pro-American critics. The fact is that even though The Massacre in Korea was regarded as a total failure by CFP officials (because it was not explicit enough to serve as propaganda); it pushed enough buttons in the US to force critics into vilifying its subject matter far beyond the mean[ix].

We have said that Picasso’s work on The Massacre in Korea was considered. By this it is not crudely meant that he thought about the work for a long period of time prior to its inception, rather it is implied that, from the outset, Picasso knew which formal elements he wanted to carry over from Manet’s painting and which ones he wanted to introduce of his own. He began work on The Massacre in Korea at his studio at Rue des Grands Agustins, Vallauris, the small southern French town run by Communists where he had been living since 1948, sometime around November/December 1950, probably shortly after receiving the prestigious honour from the Russians of the Lenin Prize for Peace. The elements Picasso chose to carry over from Manet’s painting are as follows: the shallow foreground space, the massed group of soldiers located over on the right (seven altogether, as in Manet’s mutilated second version of The Execution of the Emperor Maximilian in the National Gallery, London) and the symbolically significant positioning of the victims of the massacre over on the left. Elements he introduced by himself are: the substitution of eight women and children in the place of Maximilian and his two generals, the dramatically altered physical and physiognomic attributes of the soldiers and the devastated landscape that forms the backdrop to the scene. Each of these elements must be examined carefully in order to unlock the full meaning of Picasso’s painting which, like Manet’s work, operates on a number of hidden, or coded, pictorial levels.

We shall take the landscape element first, perhaps the most significant ‘hidden’ aspect of the entire work, and one that has been critically overlooked. The first thing to note about the landscape in The Massacre in Korea is that it is resolutely not Korean either in strictly topographical terms, or in terms of local colour. The significance of the landscape in Picasso’s painting lies in its symbolic allusion to the atomically levelled city of Hiroshima – indeed the shell of the gutted building in the middle distance bears more than a passing resemblance to Hiroshima’s destroyed Genbuku dome, the former site of the Prefectural Exhibition Hall – and as such thunderously recalls the heavy burden of America’s responsibility for the murder of hundreds of thousands of people in 1945. This, Picasso suggests, is the architectural backdrop to America’s follow-up war in Korea – and is the background, or ‘theatre’, against which all future military operations must be set and judged.

Next Picasso proceeds to present the most recent victims of US military action, the mothers and the children of Korea over on the left, naked and at their aggressors’ mercy. He was careful not to depict male victims because like all patriarchs, Picasso felt that the true victims of war were those who were too weak, or could not fight for themselves. The women are shown to be visibly pregnant and are identified as being Korean by their almond shaped eyes and uniformly long black hair. Picasso depicts the children of Korea in classical attitudes of either innocent play (witness the young boy stooping down to pick up stones) or abject terror. The entire group of victims are placed in front of what appears to be an open pit or mass grave – an analogy to the events of the Holocaust and the clearest possible evidence of Picasso’s conviction that America’s belligerent behaviour post WWII was akin to that of the Nazis before and during. Similarities between the noble aspects of the women in Picasso’s painting – they all stand upright, prepared to meet their fate – and Manet’s representation of Maximilian flanked by his two generals, steadfastly meeting theirs, are striking, but the pathos evident in Picasso’s version clearly differentiates it from Manet’s coolly efficient documentary reality.

The two paintings come pictorially closest to each other in the treatment of their soldiery. Whilst the massed groups are undeniably similar in pose and stature, the standout element linking both works is the figure of a man standing slightly apart from the main group, turning away from the serried ranks and almost outfacing the viewer. In Manet’s painting this figure (the NCO), as we have seen, is shown casually checking over his rifle prior to administering the coup de grace; in Picasso’s, this figure becomes the conduit through which the artist’s scathing assessment of the inhumanity of warfare, and in particular that waged by Americans, finds its most active expression. In Picasso’s painting we can see an almost Darwinian evolution taking place in the group of soldiery from right to left. This evolution begins with the figure of the man (comparable with Manet’s NCO) grasping a cudgel – the weapon of the caveman – in his left hand, and a sword – the weapon of classical antiquity – in his right. This figure represents the barbarian turned general, the animal turned machine who leads the rest into ‘battle’ from behind. It distils, into one single unit, all of the tub-thumping bombast of US generals such as George S. Patton, who proclaimed in his famous speech on June 5th, 1944 that “Americans love a winner. Americans will not tolerate a loser… Americans pride themselves on being He Men and they ARE He Men… We have the finest food, the finest equipment, the best spirit, and the best men in the world.[x] Picasso’s soldier figures, including the general – provocatively – have no penises, thus denying them any kind of (re)productive purpose (this is also suggestive of cowardice: they have ‘no balls’). The evolutionary aspect of Picasso’s group of soldiers is brought to a forceful conclusion in the form of the ultra-modern machine guns[xi] and automatic rifles that the rest of them aim at their Korean victims. These are of course, a coded reference to the advances made in US technology, then coming to world prominence through the development of man-made materials such as nylon (patented in 1938) and Teflon (1945), as well as the continued development of new field weaponry such as the M20 recoilless rifle and the super advanced jet fighters the P-80 ‘Shooting Star’ and the F-86 ‘Sabre’, all used during the war in Korea[xii]. In one dramatic arc we have gone from the beginning of conquest warfare, through its classical phase, and into the modern American led atomic era without missing a beat. But, the end result, Picasso demonstrates, is always and ever the same: for all our so-called advances in civilization, the innocent and disenfranchised still suffer the most.

For decades US administrators denied American involvement in the events of No Gun Ri, and other incidents like it reported during and after the Korean War. Dismissing the reports of witnesses both abroad and at home as Communist fantasy, the Home authorities in McCarthyist America continued to embroil the US in a patriotic miasma through which the country was always presented as righteous. Throughout 1951 Picasso’s painting was condemned in the US as being nothing more than propaganda, whilst ironically, it was equally condemned in Communist circles for not being propagandistic enough. Neither concern can conclusively be said to have motivated Picasso in completing the painting; but nevertheless, Picasso’s name was included in a long list of Modern artists – including the Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko (1903-1970), Jackson Pollock (1912-1956), Barnett Newman (1905-1970) and William Baziotes (1912-1963), accused by US Congressman George Dondero in April, 1956 of being part of a worldwide conspiracy to subvert, in their art, American morality through Communist cultural freedom[xiii]. Had he lived long enough to witness the breaking news reports of the Associated Press in America in September, 1999, it is hard not to imagine Picasso unleashing a wry smile at the memory of the stinging criticism of his work, and its ultimate vindication; for at long last, thanks to the declassification of military papers relating to the war in Korea, and a longstanding investigation on behalf of victims of the massacre by US reporters Randy Herschaft and Charles Hanley, it emerged that American troops had indeed been directly involved in the massacre at No Gun Ri after all. On September 30, 1999, the Washington Post first broke the story that would ultimately lead to a full US Inquiry into the events surrounding and leading up to the massacre, and the then US President Bill Clinton issuing a statement of regret at American involvement in the deaths of an as yet still undetermined number of South Korean civilians near the bridge at No Gun Ri. The President’s statement, dated 11th January, 2001, ran as follows:

On behalf of the United States of America, I deeply regret that Korean civilians lost their lives at No Gun Ri in late July [sic], 1950. The intensive, year long investigation into this incident has served as a painful reminder of the tragedies of war and the scars they leave behind on people and on nations. Although we have been unable to determine precisely the events that occurred at No Gun Ri, the U.S. and South Korean governments have concluded in the Statement of Mutual Understanding that an unconfirmed number of innocent Korean refugees were killed or injured there. To those Koreans who lost loved ones at No Gun Ri, I offer my condolences. Many Americans have experienced the anguish of innocent casualties of war. We understand and sympathize with the sense of loss and sorrow that remains even after a half a century has passed. I sincerely hope that the memorial the United States will construct to these and all other innocent Korean civilians killed during the war will bring a measure of solace and closure. The commemorative scholarship fund that we will launch will serve as a living tribute to their memory.”[xiv]

[i] Eakin, Hugh, Picasso’s Party Line in ARTNews, Volume 99/Number 10 (November 2000):

[ii] Crespelle, Jean-Paul, Picasso, Les Femmes, Les Amis, L’Oeuvre, Paris, Presses de la Cité, (1967), p.264, and Hoving Keen, Kirsten, Picasso’s Communist Interlude: The Murals of ‘War’ and ‘Peace’ in The Burlington Magazine, Vol. 122, No. 928, Special Issue Devoted to Twentieth-Century Art (Jul., 1980), pp.464-470

[iii] Utley, Gertje R., Picasso, The Communist Years, New Haven & London, Yale University Press, (2000), pp.150-151

[iv] Leighton, John & Wilson-Bareau, Juliet, The Maximilian Paintings: Provenance and Exhibition History in Wilson-Bareau, Juliet (ed.), Manet: The Execution of Maximilian, London, National Gallery Publications (ex. cat.), (1992), pp.112-113

[v] Wilson-Bareau, Juliet, Manet and the Execution of Maximilian in Wilson-Bareau (1992), p.38

[vi] Naturally, as a Communist, Picasso did not stop to consider the equally ideological implications of Russia or China’s involvement in Korea; but why should this really matter? His opinion was just as valid as anybody else’s, and certainly since his death, art history has never accused Manet of being on the wrong side of the argument by being a Republican.

[vii] Leighton & Wilson-Bareau (1992), p.113

[viii] Leighton & Wilson-Bareau (1992), p.112

[ix] See: Han, Jin, Picasso’s Massacre in Korea and War and Peace: Paintings in the Context of the French Postwar Intellectuals’ Movement, Madison, University of Wisconsin, (1994), p.6, and Crowley, David & Pavitt, Jane, Cold War: Modern Design 1945-1970, London, V&A Publishing, (2008), p.40

[x] Patton, General George S., quoted in Province, Charles M., The Unknown Patton, San Diego, Createspace Publishing, (2009), p.18

[xi] These weapons and the soldiers’ robot-like armour can also be read as cavalierly futuristic, and therefore may constitute an even more pointed reference to America if they are taken to be representative ciphers for US popular culture. American science fiction was then a very big business particularly in the form of widely distributed sci-fi magazines such as Hugo Gernsback’s Amazing Stories (first published in April, 1926) and the adventures of movie serial heroes such as Buck Rogers (played by Buster Crabbe in the very successful 12 part serial Buck Rogers (1939)) and Flash Gordon (again played by Crabbe in Flash Gordon Conquers the Universe (1940)). Even more recently, American science fiction had grasped the imagination of the world with the release of big budget cinematic productions such as Irving Pichel’s Destination Moon (1950). The ‘ray gun’ and the ‘space suit’ may inform Picasso’s soldiery in ways that bear much closer scrutiny: indeed could this one facet of The Massacre in Korea reveal Picasso as a progenitor of ‘Pop’? Special thanks to David Woods at TATE Liverpool for suggesting some of these connections.

[xii] Werrell, Kenneth P., Sabres Over MiG Alley, Annapolis, Naval Institute Press, (2005), p.71

[xiii] This idea even formed a part of the title of the infamous speech Dondero presented before the US House of Representatives later that year: Communism Under the Guise of Cultural Freedom is Strangling American Art. See: Dondero, George, Speech in the United States House of Representatives, 14 June, 1956, published in the Congressional Record, Washington D.C., 84th Congress, 2nd Session, (1956), pp.10419-10425. Cited in Craven, David, Myth Making: Abstract Expressionist Painting from the United States, Liverpool, TATE Gallery Liverpool (Ex. Cat), (1992), p.7

[xiv] Mediawatch Online Focus, 11 January, 2001:

Citation for this article is as follows: Kendall, Lee R., Would the Real Pablo Picasso Please Stand Up: Politics vs. realism in The Massacre in Korea, in Pieces... Occasional and Various, Apr-Jun, 2010, pp.5-10